Rita Dove’s new Penguin anthology has made Amazon’s “Best Books of 2011” list; while the “bestness” of the book is dubious to say the least, the Dove anthology is surely part of the “best” or at least most notable literary controversies of 2011. The controversy began with Helen Vendler’s scathing review of the anthology in the November 24, 2011 issue of The New York Review of Books; Dove has since responded in a letter to the editor and publications such as the The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Guardian have picked up the story. The argument has truly been an ugly one and Vendler winds up looking like a racist curmudgeon, Dove winds up looking like an irresponsible anthologist (and less than eloquent defender of the poets she loves), and Penguin winds up looking absolutely fraudulent in its packaging of the anthology.
The votes are in, and the winner of the poll for the first book to be discussed in the Big Other Book Club is Tom McCarthy’s C. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, hailed by many and knocked by maybe even more, McCarthy describes the book as dealing with technology and mourning. I’m excited to have, as our first book for discussion, a contest finalist that’s merit has been argued. All the more fuel for our discussion. I’ll start reading quite soon, and begin posting questions, comments and death threats in January.
In the mean time, here’s the rest of the schedule for 2011:
January: Tom McCarthy C
February: Mary Caponegro The Complexities of Intimacy
March: Manuel Puig Betrayed by Rita Hayworth
April: Stanley Elkin Searches and Seizures: 3 Novellas
May: Djuna Barnes Nightwood
June: Lyn Hejinian My Life
July: John Barth The Sotweed Factor
August: Gordon Lish Peru
September: John Gardner and John Maier translation of Gilgamesh
October: John Hawkes Travesty
November: Helen Vendler Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries
December: Mo Yan Big Breasts and Wide Hips
“The lapses and failures of idealization–especially the idealization of romantic love, forced on us by nature, culture, and, above all, literature–press Stevens to an ever more stringent, and even harsh, analysis of the interrelation of the emotion’s flights and their eventual correction in time.” This harshness is “an expression of an anger that a mind so designed for adoration never found an adoration and sensuality compatible; they remained locked compartments, a source of emotional confusion and bitterness.” (p.28)
In order to get revved up for Wallace Stevens week or because I have been revving on Stevens and came up with the idea for the week, I can’t help but spill some words about the poet. First, I want to thank that perspicacious and thorough reader John Madera. A few months ago he told me he’d read all of Stevens, twice. Now, what would possess someone to do this? Stevens did. I had to see what it was about. First I concentrated on Harmonium, Stevens’s first book, one of William Gass’s Fifty Literary Pillars. Published in 1923, Stevens was forty-four when it came out. Some poems were published up to eight years before but he waited. It is a wondrous collage, with very short poems and very long ones and many of the usual suspects that show up in the anthologies: “The Snow Man,” “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” Many critics were muddled. New York Times review said, “From one end of the book to the other there is not an idea that can vitally affect the mind, there is not a word that can arouse emotion. The volume is a glittering edifice of icicles. Brilliant as the moon, the book is equally dead.”
When our friends at HTML Giant recently asked what people thought was the all-time overrated piece of literature the first comment was, “Anything by Emily Dickinson,” and I think I felt a cleaving in my mind.
A few days later I acquired Helen Vendler’s Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries from the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, just released in September. Inside Vendler gives extraordinary close readings of 150 poems. Here’s a great radio interview with Vendler about the book.
Here is poem 861:
They say that “Time assuages”-
Time never did assuage –
An actual suffering strengthens
As Sinews do, with Age –
Time is a Test of Trouble –
But not a Remedy –
If such it prove, it prove too
There was no Malady –
And from Vendler:
When Dickinson lost her only “playmate,” her dog Carlo, Higginson expressed sympathy. She wrote back, saying, “Thank you, I wish for Carlo,” and continuing with the second stanza of “They say that ‘Time assuages’ – “. But she added, “Still I have the Hill, my Gibraltar remnant. Nature, seems it to myself, plays without a friend.” She never acquired another dog.